(Re)Turning the Inside Out: Experiential Humanism

If during our study of the humanities we scrutinize how we experience the world around us and we document that experience visually, verbally, and musically, then perhaps we could imagine that experiencing nature could be a science of the humanities.  At the beginning of human time, our world was nature and our expressions of our world were rooted in the flora and fauna, the rocks and mountains, and the soil around us. Storytelling through parietal art, petroglyphs, and pictographs, poetry and prose helped our ancestors frame their lives within a world they were driven to understand, leading me to believe that since humans have had the ability, we have wondered about our relationship to the world and have expressed that wonderment in literature, philosophy, art, religion, history, and music.  These disciplines within the umbrella of humanities are those expressions about nature and its forces that were once carved or painted on cave walls and sung around fires and are now found on scribbled on paper, painted on canvas, chiseled into rock, and displayed on screens.  Within nature, we can find a tangible and ethereal connection to our world that connects us to those first humans who examined how nature communicates and how we first connected nature to our souls.


Our insatiable need for technology may limit our focus to the 1s and 0s that display roads and speak directions, show dog meme photos, and flash faceted jewel game pieces on our small screens so that we ignore the grandeur of the sky framed by tree canopy and the minutia of the insects in the soil.  Marianne Robinson in her essay “Humanism” asks us to consider the dehumanization that results from this privileging of technology and science over humanities. She grieves for those of us who are “more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being,” leading me to wonder if we stay connected to our screens and to solving problems via these electronic displays, then we are not asking of the trees and the sky, the animals and insects those unanswerable questions we ask of our souls (3).   While our soul “is the self” that Robinson paradoxically claims “stands apart from the self,” our soul, for me, is the part of us that connects us with beauty and the creation of beauty (9). Our appreciation and creation of beauty emerge from a soul that is connected to nature.

For me, these inchoate ideas about nature, humanities, and the soul drive my work with students in Humanities and literature courses, and until I collaborated with a scientist to teach Ecological Rhetoric, I relied on the stories I read in books and heard and viewed on the screen and stage as my connections to the world. Poetry like William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” provided me with “a wild secluded scene [to] impress/Thoughts of more deep seclusion.”  My imagination of a “landscape with the quiet of the sky” was all I believed I needed to connect with nature. And then I observed my Eco Rhet students in their own study of nature at a suburban nature preserve:

A light wind on my face reminds that is chilly though the sun is shining through the tree canopy onto Katie’s journal. She sits side saddle on the edge of the footbridge. Gazing in front of her, she turns a page and begins a sketch, erasing lines, starting again, quickly pulling and pushing her pencil.  With his hood shading his face, Spencer sits on a log at the stream, resting his journal on his lap, watching the water pass by. The sunlight on Nina’s face highlights her features, and I can see her pencil moving. I hear a bird sing “wa – p – wa – p – wa” and watch it fly above the limbs over Nina’s head. Other limbs of dried leaves, gold and brown, hide Eric sitting on a rock, knees bent to form a makeshift desk with his journal resting on his thighs. I cannot see where he is looking but I can see his pencil drawing circles.

Are these students cold? I’m cold, standing here on the path watching them. My fingers are stiffening, holding the top of my journal and resting it on my forearm; my letters are nearly illegible because I cannot keep the pages steady. I wish I were ambidextrous so I could warm up my left hand while writing. The wind is blowing harder, yet the students are not moving. I am watching them in their work, in their observing while helicopter seed pods land on my page.

Before I spent this time watching my students as they practiced observation, note-taking, and sketching, I would have told you the joy I found in teaching came when I was learning and working with others as they learned. I believed my passion came from puzzling through complex concepts and listening to students tease out their own understanding of challenging texts.  The satisfaction inherent in the brain work of analysis, synthesis, and interpretation I once believed was the only food my soul needed. And I once thought I preferred to do this thinking and learning inside, comfortably protected from the weather.

Yet while teaching Ecological Rhetoric, an interdisciplinary, inquiry-based learning collaboration between Humanities and Environmental Science, I found a new joy in looking carefully at what is around me, in staying outside of my analytical brain when observing nature and my students while being uncomfortable in a cold drizzle. The exhilaration that once lit fireworks in my brain, celebrating interpretation can also spark small firefly lights when I am noticing and smelling and listening and feeling and tasting. My co-teacher and I work with juniors and seniors in this course as they present remediation plans to improve the health of a selected suburban nature preserve or create projects to encourage visitors to engage with the all that the park has to offer.  To better comprehend their role in understanding nature, the students first practice scientific observation, note-taking, and sketching during field expeditions — ultimately focusing on a specific area of inquiry and formulating a hypothesis about the cause of a problem in that area. In order to take and sketch field notes like those shared by scientists in Michael Canfield’s Field Notes on Science and Nature, students determine the concepts and skills they need and we, the teachers, find the experts to teach them scientific sketching.  Later work in the course includes experimentation and data collection at the preserve, reviews of scientific studies, literary non-fiction, and poetry that illuminate our students’ understanding of environmental concerns.  Student inquiry drives the science content: water quality, biodiversity, non-native and invasive species, and horticulture. Prior to completing their projects and presenting their plans, students discuss observations and data in podcasts submitted for a national student competition, publicizing their projects and the preserve.  This year students are working on several different projects: mitigating poor water quality in the preserve’s stream, building a monarch hatchery and waystation, constructing a pollinator garden, and creating an app for tree identification.

While I am excited about the learning in and outside of our Ecological Rhetoric classroom, I’d like to strengthen our Humanities-Environmental Science collaboration with seamless integration of literature centered on the beauty of the world in nature. I’d like students to value the words of poets and authors who write about nature just as they do the data and conclusions in research studies.  I want our students to read how authors and artists ask the trees and the sky, the animals and insects those unanswerable questions we ask of our souls so that they may pose their own questions. And I want to give shape to my formless ideas about the nature of science within Humanities.

Robinson, Mariane. “Humanism.” The Givenness of Things: Essays.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, pp. 3-16.

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